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Being the truth

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

– John 14:5-6 NRSV

My parents told me this story.

It is 1943 in Holland during the height of the Nazi occupation. Everywhere Jews are rounded up for shipping to concentration camps. Able-bodied Dutch men are required to report for labour duty in German war factories or face dire consequences. Jews and young men go “underground” to hide from death or Nazi collaboration. Many ordinary Dutch citizens create hideaways in their homes and barns to aid them, at great personal peril.

There is a knock on the door. Mrs. Jansen, the mother of a big Dutch family, now hiding a Jewish couple and young Dutch carpenter in a rug-covered underground vegetable cellar, peers through a crack in the door. A Nazi patrol! The knock is repeated, this time with a fist. Gingerly she opens the door a crack.

“Are you hiding any Jews or Dutch deserters?” barks the patrol leader in broken Dutch.

And now Mrs. Jansen is faced with a quandary. She is an honest, God-fearing Christian who knows the commandments. Doesn’t the Bible clearly condemn lying? But, if she tells and truth and says, “Ja, Herr Commandant, we are hiding a Jewish couple and our neighbour’s son, Henk, in our cellar,” then who knows what will happen to those people? And she will be partially responsible for whatever nastiness or horror befalls them, possibly death itself. She also knows the second great commandment is to “love your neighbour as yourself.” So Mrs. Jansen makes a choice. She decides to lie.

“Nee, Commandant, we are hiding no one. We have enough trouble feeding our own family let alone filling the mouths of Jews and lay-about young men.”

The commandant shrugs, looks back towards his three fellow patrollers and motions them to move on. It’s almost lunchtime and he is not in the mood for turning yet another house up-side-down and inside-out. The patrol turns away and marches off down the street. Mrs. Jansen closes her door with a sigh of relief, but breathes a silent prayer, “Dear God, forgive me for lying, but sometimes it’s hard to obey all your commandments.” Later, that evening, as she relates her experience to her husband, he reassures her, “Ja, lieve kindt (Yes, my dear), sometimes in this broken, sinful world we have to choose between the lesser of two evils.”

Living truth

“Now, Bob,” said my parents at the end of this story, “We think what Mr. Jansen said is true, but be very careful. Most of the time it is the best policy to tell the truth.”

What do you think? Was Mr. Jansen right?

I have always been struck with the odd grammatical construction of Jesus’ statement that “I am the way, the truth and the life.” How can one be the truth? We understand the concept of being truthful, that is, speaking the truth or being honest, but being truth is just an odd thing for someone to say, isn’t it?

Look up the word “truth” in a concordance and you will be astounded at how many references to it there are in the Bible. Only “Lord” and “love” have more entries. Many times, the word truth seems to mean the same thing as the fact. Thus, it is true that Saul was the first king of Israel; that is, it is a fact, meaning that it corresponds to empirical reality in much the same way that it’s a fact I’m writing this piece in my study in Edmonton, Alberta. When you are asked to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God” as a witness in a trial, the intention is that you answer questions relating to the What, When, Where and How of the case as best you can. When a child asks whether a story is “true,” she usually means to ask whether the stuff of the story could occur in her every-day reality of experience.

Biblical love

But I believe that Jesus’ statement that he is truth gets at a conception of truth that is quite different. For Jesus, truth is a way of being in the world that is characterized by love. It is love that determines the truth or falsity of an action, not just whether it corresponds to factual reality. When Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for having the devil rather than God as their father, Satan is characterized as the “father of lies.” It is Satan that would have Mrs. Jansen believe the lie that telling the truth (i.e. the facts) about hiding Jews is a sin while, in loving truth, the opposite is just the case. By being factual about the whereabouts of her hidden neighbours, Mrs. Jansen would have given in to the Nazi lie that it is alright to exterminate an entire race of people, or to conscript young men to work for an unjust power that is trying to perpetrate that lie.

I am suggesting that there is scriptural warrant for us to consider “truth” to be, first and foremost, an ethical category – how we ought to behave towards each other, for example, rather than a knowledge category, judging whether something is in accordance with the facts. As the prologue of I Corinthians 13 makes clear, any claims of truth that are made in a self-serving, loveless manner are just worthless noise. Biblical love is the truth that trumps the facts. 

Author

  • Bob is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton.

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